We need different ways of looking at problems

Date : May 20 , 2019 | Opinion

Matthew Spacie, founder of Magic Bus and Cleartrip, explains why the social sector needs new talent and diverse skills – and how corporate talent can make their engagement with the sector more meaningful.

When I was 18, I took a gap year at high school to travel to India to work at Mother Teresa’s hospital for leprosy patients. I guess I was always inclined towards this kind of work, but I only discovered how strong a desire it was several years later when I was posted to Mumbai as COO of Cox & Kings

I was 29 when I took up that role and I spent the first couple of years focusing on the job.  At some point, though, I started thinking about what I really wanted to do.

I was a passionate rugby player and played at the Bombay Gymkhana each week.  Many of the young men living on the adjacent street or in communities nearby would regularly watch us play. For me, the connection between my desire to work with young people and rugby was easy. That’s when I decided to start coaching some 20-30 boys from Fashion Street and create rugby a team for them.

So, three days a week, after work hours, I would train these boys in rugby and, on the weekends, I would hire a bus and take them out of the city to trek and camp.  Soon the children gave a name to our amazing weekend adventure: Magic Bus

Finding purpose

Perhaps the most powerful day of my life was when my rugby team, comprising street- dwelling and low income youth, walked through the front door of the Bombay Gymkhana into the changing room, changing with some of the  wealthiest young people in India and playing as equals for an hour-and-a-half before walking off the field,  back to their own environment. It was amazing to see how sport can be used in this manner. It was far more powerful than I had ever imagined.

I think that was the point when I made the choice, at the age of 34, to leave my job and focus on this new endeavour. My career had been on track, and I felt professionally confident and in a good place and I told myself I would give this some six months. That was my limited vision of Magic Bus! I even had a job offer in Australia, but I got caught up doing this amazing thing—and stayed on for 20 years. Today I see several people—from 18-year-olds to 65-year-olds—who want to join the social sector and have a burning desire to give back. This includes a lot of people from the corporate sector too, people who want to undertake the kind of journey I set out on two decades ago.

Why it’s a good time to be in the social sector

With 2-3 million NGOs in the country, every statistic suggests we should be winning the social development battle. But we are not winning it because we don’t have scalable solutions to the problems. That’s why we need ‘Microsoft’ or ‘Oracle’ kind of mindsets to come into the social sector and look at things in a different way.

Having been in the social sector for 20 years, I think talent is an important issue that the sector mustn’t underestimate any longer. Organisations in the sector now talk about scale and sustainability, but most of them are not equipped to do that. We need people who are at the prime of their career, talent and energy to come into the social sector; we need different skills to come if we are to succeed. 

Skills are critical. We need people to come into the sector and do the job they are trained to do well in the for-profit world. Magic Bus has nearly 2000 employees and, surprising as it may sound, we operate like a for-profit in many ways. Thus, when we recruit an HR head, the lens we assume is that you have to have great impact but, essentially, we want a very good HR person to come into the organisation.

Why working in the social sector is challenging

If you are considering switching to the social sector, I think it’s critical that you prepare yourself for the challenge. It would be a good idea to see how your skills match the organisations whose work resonates with you.  It is critical to understand what the leadership looks like. Spend some time doing your homework, understanding what it is like to work in the social sector because this is the hardest decision you will ever make in your life. Meet people who’ve made that transition and get a good sense of how they work.

I really struggled in my first five to seven years in the sector. I probably spent five years just trying to understand how to work in this space and figuring out people in the sector. There are some key factors that make the social sector a challenging space to be in:

Metrics for success: One can never underestimate how fortunate businesses are to have a bottom line. It’s easy to measure success simply by looking at how much money is being made or not made. We in the social sector work in an environment where even defining metrics for measurement is sometimes difficult—how do we decide what success looks like? We are working to solve problems that have been ailing the society for hundreds of years. But funders want that to be done within the limited time for which they have given us money.

Decision making: Most non-profits have a democratic culture where nothing moves unless everybody has their hands up voting to agree with you. Every stakeholder is critical to decision-making. Of course, democracy is great — until it stops working.  Which is why we changed that culture in Magic Bus to looking at technical skills, leadership, building consensus and aligning people in the decision-making process. But most non-profits still follow a quasi-democratic/ consensus-based approach and that is something you will need to appreciate and learn to practice when you do come into the sector.

Limited resources: You are going to be working in organisations that probably have a fraction of the budget you had in your corporate careers, to solve some of the most complex problems in society. You learn to live on the breadline and you probably become really good for it.

It’s not always fun:  I spend 75 percent of my life fundraising as Magic Bus aims to grow from an INR 100-crore organisation to an INR 300-crore one in the next four years. It takes a lot of time on the road, building relationships and putting oneself out there. It’s hard work and probably causes the most fatigue of all the things I do at Magic Bus. But as a leader, one has got to do whatever it takes to help your organisation focus on its work.

Finding joy in what you do

Twenty years ago, before I started Magic Bus, someone told me: “Mathew, go and give food to poor children on the streets.” I did that for two weeks but found limited joy in it. However, I loved rugby, and that was my spark. Similarly, what’s your spark?

Largely, when people talk about wanting to give back, they still tend to think of two ways of doing it:

Giving money:  Usually this involves helping someone address an immediate need, such as a medical crisis. This kind of giving, probably more common among a lot of people, doesn’t have an involvement beyond that act of giving the money.

Volunteering: People fall back on volunteering or volunteerism where they ‘sacrifice’ an hour, a day or a week to a cause. I believe they do this more for the personal satisfaction they derive from the act than for the actual impact created.

However, what if you could combine whatever is your ‘spark’ with a more engaged, evolved and involved way of giving? What if there was a sense of purpose in whatever you enjoy doing? So, if playing the piano is your ‘spark’, what if you could train a child to excel at the piano? You would build a deeper relationship and also take accountability for the child’s progress. And your engagement would last longer because you derive real joy from what you are doing.

Finally, whatever way you choose to engage with the social sector and give back, make sure you don’t carry a sense of sacrifice with you. That’s not the relationship you should have with your work and the people you work with. Remember, it’s a privilege to come into a place like this and have the opportunity to do meaningful work.

Matthew Spacie was formerly COO of Cox and Kings and founder of Cleartrip.com. In 1999, Matthew established Magic Bus, which has since grown from an informal, volunteer-led activity for disadvantaged children into a leading organisation working in the area of mentoring some of India’s poorest children and young people from education to livelihood. Matthew has been an Ashoka Fellow, a TED Fellow and an ACSEP Asia Centre for Social Entrepreneurship and Philanthropy Fellow. In 2007, he was awarded an MBE for services to children in the Commonwealth.

Recent Posts

View All >>